Brandon parents told smaller gathering limits don't apply to schools

As residents in Brandon, Man., are adjusting to new pandemic restrictions that came into effect Monday, parents are trying to wrap their heads around how back-to school plans could be impacted.

School division says stricter health orders don't apply to schools

Parents in Brandon, Man., are wondering why recent gathering limits imposed on the greater health region won't apply to schools. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

As residents in Brandon Man. are adjusting to new pandemic restrictions that came into effect Monday, parents are trying to wrap their heads around how back-to school plans could be impacted.

"It's super confusing and extremely frustrating," said Brandon mother of three Nicole Oliver.

The Prairie Mountain Health region, which includes Brandon, has been placed under heightened restrictions after COVID-19 cases there have surged in the past two weeks.

The orange, or "restricted" level limits gathering sizes to 10, but the Brandon School Division says it will continue to operate under its yellow, or "caution" risk level plan, which has caused parents like Oliver to question why schools are exempt.

"I'm quite confused as to why they magically get excluded," said Oliver, whose kids range from Grade 2 to Grade 7.

"We've been actively avoiding very large crowds, we haven't gone to really anything all summer because we are keeping to ourselves and keeping our bubble fairly small but [now] we're going to go back to three kids in three different grades, essentially [exposure to] the entire school," she said.

The Brandon School Division board meeting Monday evening was closed to the public due to COVID-19 but was streamed online. (Brandon School Division website)

Brandon School Division officials met Monday evening for the last public school board meeting before classes are to resume in September. 

"Right now we're still looking at operating as if we're in yellow because we haven't been told that education is shifting to the alert in orange," superintendent Marc Casavant told the board Monday.

"But if we did move to an orange alert the high schools would be educated from an online remote system so that we could adequately space out the K-8s and use some of the high school spaces to do that," he said. 

Division told rules don't apply

In a letter sent to staff and parents, the division attempted to clarify why the schools would be under different restrictions than the rest of the city.

"The Brandon School Division has been advised that the health orders under the new level are being applied in a focused manner and that at this time do not apply to schools," the letter said.

"As this may change in the coming days or weeks, we are looking at our existing plan for reopening and making preparations to ensure we can meet the requirements for schools if the level changes to orange/restricted."

The division said more information would be provided as the situation unfolds.

BSD Supt. Marc Casavant told the board Monday that the orange level restrictions imposed on the Prairie Mountain health region don't apply to the education system. (Brandon School Division website)

The province said that the pandemic response system, which has the ability to impose different rules on different regions, allows for targeted, specific measures and restrictions where they are needed to help control the spread of COVID-19. 

"Because of the additional measures being implemented within the education system, public health officials have not recommended additional restrictions specific to schools at this time," a provincial spokesperson said in an email.

Face masks had already been made mandatory in schools for all grades before the health region received stricter measures.

Two sets of rules confusing

Safe September MB, an advocacy group that is pushing for smaller class sizes, is critical of the different response levels.

"There should not be one set of rules for students and teachers and another — more rigorous — set for everyone else, including trustees and elected officials," the group said in a press release.

Oliver said having two different sets of rules is confusing and sends the wrong message to kids, who have been told they can't associate in groups.

"It's a little bit of a 'why can't we go do this but yet I can go hang out in a classroom of 30 of my friends?" said Oliver.

"I don't know how they can pick and choose their rules."

Oliver said she's not so much worried about sending her kids back to school as she is about not knowing what the plan is, should there be a case where students or staff need to isolate.

"I haven't heard from my kids' school and they're supposed to be there in two weeks," she said.

"I honestly don't know what's going to happen."

She'd like to see more information about how the schools will run their day, how the cohorts will work and if there are students who need to be quarantined, what will happen to their learning plan.

"I feel a little bit like we were in March, how we're just like going on the fly," Oliver said.

"It's just going to look like a hot mess I think."

Oliver would like to see virtual options being offered for families who want to keep their kids at home so that it could allow more space in the classrooms for the kids who need to be there.

"I am super frustrated, I am anxious, but I know my kids need to be back in school, they miss the other kids. My kids are very extroverted, they need that social piece."